"Where are we?"
Well, she knew we were in Syracuse. But the very sweet LSU fan had no idea where Syracuse was. I attempted to help.
The scene on the Skytop lot at 8 a.m. Saturday morning didn't take long to pick up. LSU fans and alums had picked up stakes and made their way to central New York for one of their only chances to see the Tigers and star running back Leonard Fournette play in the Northeast. Brad and Kirby, a pair of LSU fans currently stationed in Northern Virginia, welcomed me with open arms and some exquisite elk sausage.
This is Kirby, and yes, that's a squirrel tail on the back of his hat. He killed the squirrel himself and used it in a gumbo.
A common theme throughout my conversations with LSU fans was the things they were giving up in order to go see the Tigers play Syracuse.
"I missed the Pope for an LSU game."
"I missed the birth of my son for this."
He assured me the situation was complicated.
The majority of the LSU fans in Syracuse came from throughout the I-95 corridor. Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and a sizable contingent from Pittsburgh as well. They came with business on their minds, and basically every tailgate I went to had multiple bottles of bourbon in various states of emptiness.
My white whale was trying to find LSU fans who drove up from Baton Route specifically for this game. The closest I could find were Don and Marlene, an extremely nice couple who drove their RV from Baton Rouge, but in the midst of a three-week vacation. Also on their list of things to do: "Getting some of those big crawfish from Maine."
Later in the morning, the parking lots had gotten lively. Nearly everyone I talked with, both Syracuse and LSU fans alike, openly expressed dismay at the game being a noon kickoff and not an afternoon or night game, and it's hard to blame them. Taking the time to get a huge pot of jambalaya going is no small undertaking, and some were putting them up and taking them down in the span of about three hours.
This jambalaya was incredible, by the way.
LSU fans have a reputation across the country for their tailgating enthusiasm. Even this far from Baton Rouge, it's easy to see why. Every tailgate I came across was generous with food, drink and conversation, and they got along famously with the Syracuse fans in the parking lots. They might have tried to drink the town dry, but they said please and thank you.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
If you're wondering why these two opposites -- one of the country's all-time winning programs from near the SEC's western edge, vs. a recent ACC call-up from the Big East with a proud history -- are playing a home-and-home series, you are not the only one.
Set aside the incongruity between the two cultures, and the game still doesn't make immediate sense. And it's not like this series was agreed to a few years ago during one of Syracuse's eight-win seasons. It was agreed to in 2014.
The Tigers haven't been shy about scheduling non-conference games against power-conference teams. They've been in opening-week, neutral-site games against Wisconsin and Oregon, and they've played home-and-homes with the likes of West Virginia, with more coming up against Texas, UCLA, Arizona State, and Oklahoma. We've reached a point at which weak non-conference schedules have more consequence than just grumbling on the Internet, so it makes sense LSU is trying to keep these contracts frequent.
What doesn't make sense is scheduling a team like Syracuse, a Power Five team, but one without the name cachet to make people debating Playoff rankings say, "Ehhh, at least LSU played Syracuse in its non-conference."
It's an interesting choice for Syracuse, too. The Orange have been trying to dig themselves out of a hole for years now, and scheduling two near-automatic losses hurts more than the big name on one home schedule helps. As the Syracuse fans at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician argue, Syracuse needs to schedule lightly outside its ACC slate, as those easy wins against FCS and low-level FBS teams can help a program get back on its feet.
If you've never been in the Carrier Dome, you should know a few things. It's spiritually aligned with the other multi-use sports facilities built in the late-'70s and early-'80s: spartan and threadbare. It is a monument to hard angles.
I will say this: it has good sight lines, and it's a good place to watch a game.
One would have to think that for LSU, playing in the Dome was a disorienting experience. The Tigers play in one of college football's hallowed grounds in Tiger Stadium, and most of their games are in similar open-air environments.
When I was in high school, the New York State marching band finals were held every fall in the Carrier Dome. I went into that dome and performed on the field four times, and the acoustics make it seem like everyone in the crowd is a Jamaican dub selector with the reverb turned all the way up. Once the sound gets bouncing, it's hard to distinguish much of anything other than the wall of sound. That's not to say it's impossible to hear on the field, but the noise can quickly turn into a cacophony.
11 ON FOURNETTE
The week before, Fournette ripped Auburn to shreds, putting up 228 yards and three touchdowns on only 19 carries.
Coming into Saturday, the Syracuse defense boasted some gaudy raw numbers against the run. The Orange were allowing only 1.52 yards per carry (second in the nation) and 46.67 yards/game (third). Those numbers were against Rhode Island, Wake Forest and Central Michigan, so there was some question as to how well they could contain Fournette.
LSU won, 34-24, after Syracuse put up a game effort despite being down to its fifth-string quarterback. But Fournette rushed for 244 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, good for an average per carry of 9.4. He was six yards short of the school record for rushing yards in a game; had two long runs not been called back for penalties, he would've had 354 and a third touchdown. And the illegal formation penalty that canceled out his 87-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter might have been a mistake.
But it's still somehow possible to say the Syracuse defense did an admirable job. If you take out a 62-yard touchdown run and this 48-yard run off a broken play, Fournette only had 134 yards.
The Orange kept him bottled up, but one or two breakdowns kill you when you're playing against talent of this caliber. Fournette was almost the entirety of LSU's offense, as Brandon Harris and the passing game were largely non-functional. Syracuse knew No. 7 was coming and still couldn't stop him.
While we must be wary of handing out September Heismans, Fournette is clearly the best player in the country so far. It's easy to see how talented he is while watching on TV, but the difference between him and every other player on the field is even more stark in person. The hype surrounding him coming out of high school in 2014 appears to only have been one year early.
Earnie Davis, Jim brown, Floyd Little... Thank you guys for paving the way for us running backs to this day GOATS pic.twitter.com/54wQjlc7q6— 7⃣ (@_fournette) September 25, 2015
For most in attendance, this was the only real chance to see Fournette as a college player.
He doesn't have video game numbers
He doesn't have video game numbers
Whether he ends up being a star as a professional doesn't matter. Fans will remember the day they saw him in person and routinely turned what looked like two-yard gains into seven. They'll remember the long-range house calls, regardless of whether they actually counted.
It's always a dicey proposition to canonize a college player. They are college-aged human beings, and those have established industry track records for being erratic and unpredictable.
But it's hard to shake the feeling that years from now, people will get that reverent sound in their voices when they talk about the time they saw Leonard Fournette run the dang ball in the Carrier Dome.
Photos by Peter Berkes, SB Nation, and Mark Konezny, USA Today
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